Secularism, Nihilism, and the God Shaped Hole
Sean Dorrance Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus have diagnosed today’s secular world with a problem: nihilism. In a new book, All Things Shining they hope to remedy this problem.
The world has been stripped of meaning, according to the philosophers, through Cartesian rationalism and modern science.
From the Australian Paul Monk (7/30/2011). Excerpt from “Re-enchanting the world in a secular age”:
Most of the book retraces what the authors see as the development of the malaise of disenchantment. Chapter three, Homer’s Polytheism, centres on the idea that “the Greeks . . . held the world in constant wonder”. This was the world before disenchantment and a version of this the authors want to argue we can recapture. Not through metaphysical belief, but through the phenomenology of experience…
The authors do not, however, offer the dubious prescriptions recklessly propagated by Nietzsche in the 1880s and are suitably wary of the gnomic work of Heidegger that too easily enabled the philosopher to embrace Nazism as a way out of this modern condition.
Instead, they suggest an approach they derive from the Homeric world, to which they give the Greek name poiesis: the crafting of meaning into objects and experiences. This is not, they emphasise, a mere throwback to Homer. Rather, it is a reframing of the experiences we have in terms of the phenomenology of perception, instead of the stark, depersonalised objectivity of natural science.
There is a good deal to be said for this approach and Dreyfus and Kelly are far less reckless than Nietzsche, far less gnomic than Heidegger and far less nihilistic than Sartre. “Living well in our secular, nihilistic age”, they conclude, requires a kind of meta-poiesis: an understanding of when to be immersed in flow and meaning and when to rise above it into autonomy. There is a good deal to be said for this.
The problem is that the book ends well short of articulating how exactly, on an everyday basis, the common citizen of the secular world – as distinct from the exemplary craftsman, philosopher or aesthete – can live the meta-poietic life.
I have my doubts that the book will succeed at all. If the problem arose from viewing the world as a “mechanistic clock”, can we get back to meaning through a phenomenological perspective? Can this even approximate the kind of wonder those Homeric Greeks once experienced, i.e. their awe before crashing thunder and dread before the vast sea? Or would we just be obscuring and ignoring the hole that lies at the center of our culture?
In contrast, there is G.K. Chesterton’s philosophy: fairy tales.
…[W]e all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost prenatal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found out that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water (Orthodoxy).1
I think I might be a “fairy-talist” rather than a phenomenologist. Re-enchanting is remembering how weird it is that there should be anything at all. Then, that it should be this way and not that way.
Ultimately meaning is not just found in wonder or enchantment, though I think this is a necessary first step. It is the recognition that there is a deep desire for meaning and purpose naturally within each of us, something Kelly and Dreyfus recognize. This is the desire reflected in Augustine’s prayer to God,
You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you (Conf. 1,I).2
The question, then, is whether we are condemned never to find rest, or whether our desire for rest corresponds to something real. I don’t think Kelly and Dreyfus can offer us anything real. They can only offer us a delusion within which one can, from time to time, be immerse. But hasn’t the rug been pulled out from under us? Can we make-believe in meaning? Can we boot-strap meaning into existence within a world without ultimate purpose–a world headed towards a heat-death, or cosmic crunch? Can we make-believe meaning while believing that all of our projects will turn to dust and memories of our existence will be forgotten within four or five generations?
At the same time, I don’t think the scientist can be completely blamed for our modern secular nihilism. After all, science can inspire in us wonder about the natural world. Yet science can also lead us to forget the deeper questions of existence and to suppose that there is no ultimate meaning–that everything just is. But if Chesterton is right, we can occasionally remember– and shudder. And if Augustine is right, then our desire for meaning and enchantment will be satisfied.
Now to be fair, I have not read Kelly and Dreyfus’ book yet. But when I do, I will let you know whether it is a tenable plan to reinsert meaning into this nihilistic age.
1 Chesterton, G.K. (2001) Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday. 51.
2 Augustine. (1998) The Confessions. Trans. M. Boulding, O.S.B. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics. 3.